BY ALANA PERRY, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
Bellarmine University has one of eight undergraduate courses in the United States in which students dissect human cadavers.
Dr. David Porta is proud of the facility he designed for this class with the help of Dr. Mark Wiegand in 2008 and 2009, but he would like to add one thing: a sign above the door that reads “Hic locus est ubi mors gaudet succurrere vitae,” or “This is the place where the dead delight in teaching the living.”
Porta has taught gross anatomy for 23 years, has received two “Teacher of the Year” awards at Bellarmine and conducts trauma studies that investigate the tolerance of the human body to design better safety systems and more.
“I say I teach gross anatomy, and I do. I stand there and wave my hands in front of a PowerPoint, but the students really learn more from dissecting the body, from that dead body. That’s who’s really teaching the course,” Porta said.
Each fall semester the graduate physical therapy students, taught by Dr. Chantal Prewitt, use the gross anatomy lab.
“It’s a great lab, and it’s a great opportunity for people to learn the body,” Prewitt said. “I think you learn more from doing than just watching.”
Porta’s undergraduate gross anatomy class of mostly biology, chemistry, and biochemistry and molecular biology majors focuses on the upper limbs and torso in the spring with four students to a cadaver.
“We’ve had some art majors in gross. We’ve had some psych majors in gross, which makes sense,” Porta said. “I have a really liberal visitation policy so if it’s just a question of somebody wanting to see dead bodies, let me give a talk, sign a waiver and we’ll go in for one afternoon instead of taking my class because the class is pretty tough.”
He said high schools often visit, and the Governor’s Scholars program hosted at Bellarmine tours the lab as well.
Bellarmine students have 24-hour access to the lab with their ID cards.
“They can go in there in the middle of the night if they want to study, that’s fine with me,” Porta said. “It sounds spooky at first, but once you’re in there for just a week you realize it’s a dead body. There are no ghosts, it’s not going to move, and it’s not going to sit up in the middle of the night.”
Senior biology major Sara Jane Hubbard said gross anatomy was her favorite class and one she would even love to take again, but she did not go into the lab alone the first few weeks.
“It’s hard to be the only live person in the room,” Hubbard said.
However, she said learning from a cadaver is more inspiring than learning from diagrams.
Although the visitation policy is open with authorization and gross anatomy students always have access to the lab, privacy is of the utmost importance. Porta spends two hours on the first day of class going over privacy guidelines, and as a result, no issues have arisen.
Porta said viewing a dissection at Bellarmine is a privilege, no cadaver material leaves the lab, no picture or video is allowed in the lab and no detailed web discussions about the gross anatomy lab are allowed.
In addition to the privacy precautions, health precautions are taken into account for anyone working in the lab. Porta said the embalming fluid is a low-level carcinogen so everyone wears gloves inside the lab.
“I did my Ph.D. at UofL’s medical school, and when I started there in 1988 that was the first year they dissected wearing gloves,” Porta said.
Porta also highlights the difference between organ donation and bequeathal in his day-one presentation. He said Bellarmine’s cadavers are bequeathed, which is when someone makes it a part of their will that their body will be sent to a medical school after his or her death.
“We’re lucky we get assistance from local medical schools that provide us bodies, and I have to return the bodies. It’s a loaner program,” he said.
Porta said organ donation as a result of signing the back of a driver’s license is completely separate from gross anatomy, and none of those cadavers would ever end up in the gross anatomy lab.
“These are people who are nice and generous, and they just want this [their body] to be their last gift on earth,” Porta said.
Hubbard praised Porta’s tactic in introducing the students to the lab environment and spending time dissecting the cadavers.
“He actually tells you the [first] name of the person so you’re forced to think of them as a person. You know this is the body they lived in,” Hubbard said.
She said the process of dissection is very intimate and the cadavers deserve a high level of respect. Hubbard also said the best part of the class was being able to feel the difference between someone who was sick versus someone who was healthy.
“Probably the worst part was cleaning everything. We spent a lot of time finding and cleaning what we wanted to see,” Hubbard said. She said she had dreams about removing connective tissue because she had spent so much time on that in the lab.
Senior biology and chemistry double major Benjamin Charpentier also said he would retake the class if he had time.
“Through the class I learned a ton about the human body, but more importantly, it helped to realize my dream of going to medical school,” Charpentier said. “The class is challenging, but it isn’t a bore to study for because the material is interesting and real. Even if you’re not planning on going to medical or dental school the class provides useful and applicable information.”
Porta stresses the support he has received from the Bellarmine administration throughout the design stage of the lab, the conversion from a garage into a lab and now in day-to-day use.
He said the 16 stainless steel tables in the lab cost about $9,000 each, and the room also includes a special ventilation system that whisks air away from the students faces and down into the floor through big tubes.
“That’s really what it comes down to: Bellarmine is letting me do this right,” Porta said.